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“Transitional Justice” from Kuala Lumpur to the Tenderloin

Reflections of a powerful young voice from the global movement for justice

Bee Ling recently came to GLIDE’s Center for Social Justice as part of the International Research & Exchanges Fellowship (IREX) on tolerance and conflict resolution. Having Bee here with us was a rare and very special opportunity. We learned from her, and we shared with her, as we came to see the Tenderloin and San Francisco through her eyes—and in a global context. Astute, compassionate, kind and courageously dedicated to supporting the most vulnerable members of society, Bee is now a friend and ally for whom we are deeply grateful. Before returning home to Kuala  Lumpur, Bee spoke with us about her perspective on global practices of social exclusion, discussing her plans to set up inclusive initiatives to involve people experiencing homelessness in policy processes and local service responses.

I am from Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, where gentrification has been forcing many residents out [onto the streets] and causing displacement. I call it banishment, because my neighbors on the street are being forced to move with nowhere to go.

The government calls this voluntary but the high rent prices and the foreign investment companies that are buying up real estate for wealthy people, many of whom don’t even live in Kuala Lumpur, are pushing people into poverty. These new apartments stay empty most of the year. Officials claim that Kuala Lumpur is empty, but what they mean is there are not a lot of middle-class people living there anymore. The hundreds of migrant workers and homeless people are never mentioned.

The Destitute Persons Act, which was legislated during the British Colonial period in 1872, has been at the core of federal and state strategies for dealing with poverty and homelessness in Malaysia. By this law, government officers have the power to conduct raids on ‘destitute persons’ and detain them in welfare homes.

The government narrative describes this as “rescuing” people but it is [actually] arresting [them]. If you dress well, they will leave you alone. But if you look poor or homeless, they take you to these welfare homes where you have no freedom to leave or access to legal counsel.

There is an economy behind all of this. Private contract companies are paid to clear the streets of poor people and their belongings, just like the sweeps here in San Francisco. The sweeps are costly and ineffective. Most people don’t understand that our tax money is being used to target the poor.

In 2014, officials claimed that the root cause of homelessness is soup kitchens, basically blaming poor people for being homeless. I knew that being poor should not be considered a crime, so it was then that I got involved in working on the issue of homelessness. For the last four years, we have been providing services to the people living on the street as a Coordinator for Kedai Jalanan [“Street Store,” a pop-up shop run by faculty and students from the University of Malaysia]. We provide the urban poor with daily necessities like hygiene supplies and clothing.

 

Volunteers from the University of Malaya help set up racks, organize clothes, and lend a listening ear at Kedai Jalanan’s pop-up free market for those people experiencing homelessness in Kuala Lumpur.

I was a student when I started this work and didn’t realize the complexity of the problem and power of institutionalized racism. We need research to persuade our local city council and statistics to repel the Destitute Persons Act, but they are not easy to attain because the government doesn’t produce these statistics. When I talk to city council members they tell me that we have to focus on the bigger picture. But poor people never become the bigger picture. Every day the homelessness problem grows bigger and bigger, but when will it be seen?

I joined the IREX fellowship in hopes of developing a tri-national plan. Before coming to San Francisco, I was in Japan at a conference brainstorming global movements. Rather than working alone, we must join forces together in a movement towards global justice. That is what I hope to accomplish as part of my fellowship at GLIDE’s Center for Social Justice. I want to connect and combine resources to better understand the global forces that are causing people to suffer.

Since starting my year-long fellowship at IREX, I have realized that the way authorities target the poor in the United States is the same as in Southeast Asia. We don’t have as much freedom and as many resources as people in the United States, but I hope to use everything I have learned to run campaigns that address what we can do together to push back against authoritarianism globally. My goal is to activate a community of homeless people in Kuala Lumpur to be part of organizing and standing up for themselves rather than advocates like me speaking for them.

I think it is time we talk about transitional justice, because we can’t move forward until we heal the historical wounds. For example, in Malaysia, we still can’t talk about communism. There is no narrative from the bottom. I want to record the powerful narratives of the poor to inform middle-class conceptions. Poor people have dreams, too.